Sunday, May 17, 2009

Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here

Yesterday afternoon, the OSU baseball team rallied from a 4-0 deficit to complete a series sweep of Iowa with an 8-6 win. Coupled with Penn State's win over Minnesota, the win gave the Buckeyes their sixteenth Big Ten title and first since 2001.

Under coach Bob Todd, Ohio has been a consistent contender--this is his eighth title in 22 seasons. However, recent teams have been more liable to run in the middle of the regular season pack, then spring up to win the tournament championship than to win the title. I can't say that I expected this season to be any different. On paper, OSU appeared to lack any star pitchers but rather seemed to have a stable of solid arms. The offense seemed to be constructed similarly to those of recent OSU teams--solid at getting on base, woefully inadequate in the power department.

What ended up happening was that OSU could only find five dependable pitchers: starters Alex Wimmers, Dean Wolosiansky, and Eric Best and relievers Jake Hale and Drew Rucinski. The rest of the staff was hampered by injuries and/or ineffective, and thus the team struggled mightily in mid-week games, which are usually an opportunity to fatten the overall win-loss record at the expense of smaller regional schools.

The offense, on the other hand, exceeded all expectations by emerging from the multi-year power outage by leading the conference in home runs and isolated power (as well as batting average and runs scored). The power surge was not centered on any one player but was top-to-bottom in the lineup, with the exception of the middle infielders (second baseman Cory Kovanda more than made up for hitting just one longball with a .430+ OBA).

This OSU team definitely benefited from the Big Ten's switch from four-game weekend series totaling 32 innings to a standard three-game series all comprised of nine inning games. Shaving five innings that would have been soaked up by second-line pitchers certainly was a blessing given the constitution of the team.

Unfortunately, the lack of pitching depth may well mean that this Buckeye team is not as dangerous in tournament play as recent, less-accomplished squads have been. Regardless of what happens from here on out though, this has been one of the most enjoyable seasons of my time as a fan. Particularly exciting has been the standout individual performances, of which I will mention three in particular.

1. I had reservations about Jake Hale being moved back to the bullpen for his senior season (essentially, he has been on a yearly yo-yo; starter as a freshman and junior, reliever as a sophomore and senior) but he certainly has shined in the closer's role. Hale set the OSU single-season record with 15 saves and dominated with an ERA around 1.2 and over a strikeout an inning.

2. Sophomore catcher Dan Burkhart exploded after a modest freshman campaign to the tune of .362/.435/.611, the cleanup slot in the lineup, and a possible Big Ten Player of the Year nod

3. Most impressive has been sophomore righty Alex Wimmers' transformation from a high-strikeout, high-walk reliever to dominant staff ace. Wimmers seems to be the favorite Pitcher of the Year honors with a 9-1, 2.58, 122 strikeouts in 94 1/3 innings campaign. His season has featured one spectacular performance after another: a 15 K complete game against Pitt, a 14 K complete game against Indiana, 5 shutout innings on the road at Miami-FL in a win, a no-hit bid taken into the eighth against Michigan State that ended as an 11 K two-hitter, and most significantly, a 14 K no-hitter on May 2 against the servants of evil, just the second nine-inning no-hitter in school history (and to boot, the first no-hitter I've ever seen in its entirety at any level of the game).

Whatever comes next, the Big Ten championship is an end to itself and the program should be very proud of itself.

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